Montmartre by Night and Other Parisian Delights

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 18, 2006

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Friday, October 13, 2006

October 13-15

The train ride from Brussels to Paris was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. When one thinks of food served by transit operators, leastwise in America, one does not generally expect restaurant quality fare. But there it was on my plate. The waitress attending to our car continued to fill my glass with a sumptuous, light, red wine until I'd had my fill. The Belgian countryside melted into that of France seamlessly and provided hours of peaceful entertainment. From what I could tell of my time in the south and now on this leg, the French really have one of the best rail systems on the Continent. It truly felt like traveling in comfort and style. And since it was the morning of Friday the 13th, I was glad the trip passed without incident.
We pulled into Gare du Nord and as I stepped from the train, I was transported. Two years prior my friend Sean (whom you'll remember from the exploits in Munich) and I spent five days in each London and Paris. This had been our arrival point then as well. That trip was a wonderful introduction to Europe and, in part, served to whet my appetite for traipsing all over the place like this. In any case, that first time in the City of Lights I had taken the recommendation of another friend of mine and had stayed in the 6th arrondissement at a place called the Hotel de Danube. It was near St. Germain du Prés and only a few blocks from the Seinne. What a wonderful neighborhood. From there we easily accessed all the major attractions; the Eiffel Tower, Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre and on and on. But I hadn't made it to Monmartre that first time round so, on this, my second occasion in Paris, I booked a hotel in the old artists' quartier.
I wanted to explore the former haunt of the likes of Picasso and Lautrec, wanted to see where they had lived and worked during their most formative years. I could have just as easily, I suppose, stayed elsewhere and taken the Metro up there and walked around for a day. But, given my resolve from Brussels, I figured why not stay on the other end of town and explore new things? Well, after a rather lengthy wait at the ticket counter to secure reservations for the final legs of the journey - to Burgundy and back, then on to the airport in Frankfurt - I discovered some new things all right.
I exited the Metro at the Piagelle stop, climbed the stairs to street level and was immediately greeted by a row of sex shops, strip clubs, peep shows and seedy bars as far down both sides of the street as I could see. What a lovely neighborhood I'd chosen. Part of the reason the hotel fee was so reasonable, I imagine. A quick glance at a street map posted nearby confirmed that I was indeed in the correct spot so, I set off to find the hotel, dreading what might actually lay in store for me.
But to my surprise, after turning off the main thoroughfare and trudging another half block up, I entered the lobby and the hotel appeared exactly as it had seemed on the web site. The place was clean and well appointed. The other guests looked to be normal tourist-types, not the nere-do-well vagrants I'd been imaging for the last six blocks. And the room was perfectly nice with shutters on the windows that opened to afford a lovely view westward as the city sprawled out beyond. It lacked a shower curtain, of course, but by now I'd become somewhat adept at not completely saturating the bathroom. So I gave it a go and emerged refreshed - ready to explore once again.
It was probably around 2:00 or 3:00 by now and I wanted to see Sacre Coeur in the daylight. I retraced my steps past the gauntlet of earthly delights on my way to see what is probably the second most famous church in town after Notre Dame. The irony did not escape me. Once I passed the Piagelle Metro stop again, the neighborhood abruptly changed. As I approached the base of the hill on which the church stands, it was all nice little shops and cozy cafés.
I eschewed the Funicular, opting to ascend the three large sections of stairs on foot. The higher I climbed, the more people there were lounging on the steps all around me. About half way up, there was a 3-piece acoustic group entertaining the crowd. I sat for a few minutes to listen before continuing my ascent. Even though I'd been walking every day now for almost 3 months, I felt this one in my legs. It wasn't like the near-exploding quadriceps episode of Cinque Terre but, it was definitely good exercise. I took my time and at long last stood at the pinnacle looking out over all of Paris which now lay at my feet. Even though the sky was overcast, it was a fantastic sight. After several long minutes of taking in the magnificent vista, I turned and entered the church.
Now, I feel the need to take a minute here to comment on all of my previous comments about churches. It is an inescapable fact that the Catholic church utterly dominated the lands I've been traversing during a period of human history far enough in our rearview mirror to be of interest to us and near enough to our own time to have afforded our ancestors access to the technology that allowed them to build, en masse, the kinds of grand monuments we still see standing today. And the cathedrals of old are the grandest structures we have connecting us to that past. And so, it is not surprising that this architectural form is the most visited on the Continent. And often times the most enchanting. As luck would have it, this, the last grand church I would visit on this trip, turned out to be my favorite. Sure, there were others that were larger, more ornate, more historically or architecturally significant. There were those where miracles were said to have occurred. There were those where Saints, famous artists and heads of State were buried. But as I entered Sacre Coeur a feeling came over me unlike anything else I'd felt in those other locales.
It was faultlessly tranquil. The towering dome encased a dimly lit space but, not cave-like dark as some of the others. It also stood in stark contrast given that the number who were actually worshiping outnumbered the tourists just having a look around. It is a place that seems to coax earnest prayer out of you, if it exists at all. So I took a seat in one of the pews.
I saw prettier churches along the way. And I saw bigger and more richly appointed churches too. But if I had to choose just one to set foot in every Sunday, this would be the one. I sat reflecting on the weeks gone by and all I'd done since my arrival in early August. And honestly, it all got a bit heavy so, I took a spin around the rest of the place and made my exit, glad to have seen it in the daylight to illuminate the stained glass windows.
I knew that the famed artists' quarter of Monmartre was nearby so, I set out in search of those old cafés. It was closer than I expected. Around a couple of bends I found what I was looking for, a bustling district with plenty of places to quaff cheap rouge and even more modern day artists hawking their wares. It was a lively scene and much of the art was (surprisingly) quite good too. From there I made my way over to the Cimetère Monmartre.
I loved strolling around the Parisian cemeteries. They're so artful. I know some people Stateside find it a bit grim but, they really are places of pride in many respects for the locals here. While there I saw the final resting places of Francois Truffaut and Edgar Degas, among others, before the whistling blowing cops came through to kick everyone out. I thought 6:00 was a bit early for closing time but, c'est la vie.
I ambled back in the general direction from which I'd come and soon came upon a nice looking café. I must admit I was a bit parched and so I decided to stop for an aperitif - a nice glass of white wine and some scrumptious little olives as I recall. That's how I spent the cocktail hour, watching Paris stroll by me from my little table out front, sipping my Sancerre.
Soon it was time for dinner so, I made my way to the Metro and headed for the Saint-Germain stop. As you'll recall, I was already familiar with this was the neighborhood from my first trip to Paris. I walked east and a bit north toward the river, recalling all of the amazing looking restaurants within just a few blocks of each other. One couldn't sample them all in three weeks time. I knew I would find just the right place for the evening. I strolled through winding lanes perusing posted menus for some time before finally selecting a place that gave the impression of a classic both in the atmosphere exuded and the cuisine on offer.
I was ushered through the front room which was level with patrons conversing in lively tones. We passed under a low brick archway into an equally convivial back room where I was shown to my table. It was a real challenge that night but, I finally settled on my selections. I would begin with seared foie gras and caramelized onions, followed by a pitch perfect steak au poivre paired with the traditional gratin dauphinois. The Bordeaux I ordered paired brilliantly with both courses, taking the meal to another level. I closed things out with a very simple, yet to-die-for, tarte tatin. It was wonderful from start to finish - a real French classic. Just what I had been looking for from Paris.
Fully sated, I decided to stroll by the river the few blocks to Notre Dame. As I neared, I could see it was lit beautifully. The last time I'd seen this imposing Gothic edifice it had been clad in scaffolding for repair. The restoration was now complete so, I made some photographs, lingering a bit to take in the whole scene around the Île de la Cité. Feeling the need to walk off a bit more of my fantastic intake of calories, I headed toward the Arc de Triomphe. Now, those of you who know Paris are probably thinking, "What?! That's no where near Notre Dame." And you are correct. I somehow remembered it being just a tad closer than the twenty or so kilometers I was about to tread (at least it seemed that far at the end of it). But no matter, I had the Seinne to my left flank and the Eiffel Tower in the distance, twinkling brilliantly with thousands of lights every so often, emulating a fireworks display. The magic of it all was simply palpable.
After traveling throughout the Continent for a couple of months, and having hit many of the highlights, certainly most of the major metropolitan areas, I feel much more confident in asserting that Paris is the great city of Europe. It's a place that I feel sure will never fail to impress. It's a place I know I will return to over and over again throughout my lifetime. I might even learn French in order to live there. Probably not though - hideous, the spelling. I never know in any given word which twelve letters to leave silent and which four to attempt (and of course fail) to pronounce.
In any case, as I said, the place is sheer magic. And to think, when I first put together my itinerary, I was going to leave Paris out simply because I'd already been here once. Foolishness. It was too bad I wasn't going to see my friends Ruchi and Vikram who were now living just the south but, in every cloud a silver lining. A lifetime of visits to this old town probably couldn't reveal all of her mysteries or cause one to tire of wandering her little alleyways. And besides, on my last trip I hadn't found my way out to Versailles. So, that's precisely what I intended to the next morning.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel and a change of trains from the Metro to the local line out of town, I was on my way to the châteaux. It's only a short ride from the city, maybe 20 minutes, but, not everything was destined to move so rapidly. As I approached the gates of the massive complex, I saw a line that stretched a seemingly inordinate distance. I walked half the length up the queue just to be sure I wasn't standing in a line for Gerard Depardieu autographs or something I would be thoroughly disappointed in after an hour's wait. But no, this was the line for entry tickets. And the really amazing part is that I was told while standing in line that this was nothing - that in high season the line stretched all the way back to the gate, around the corner and down the block; a good five or six hundred yards further than the line I was now standing in.
"You're shittin' me?!" I blurted. Luckily none of my French speaking compatriots took offense or likely even understood what I was saying. I couldn't imagine standing in a line that long for anything, much less in the sweltering heat of summer. Luckily it was nearing the end of October so, I endured the (only) forty minute wait. As it turned out, it was worth it.
As one approaches on foot, clearing the tree line, the first sight of the place is beyond almost anything else (man made that is) that I saw on the entire trip, save perhaps the Alhambra. They still call it a châteaux but, only because that's how it all began. The original structure on the site was built as a hunting lodge in 1624 by Louis XIII. Succeeding additions now place it squarely in the realm of grand palace as far as I'm concerned. I mean, the scope of this place makes Schönbrunn look like a starter house on Staten Island.
When the châteaux was built, Versailles was but a small country village. Now it is a suburb of ever-sprawling Paris. From 1682, when King Louis XIV moved his Court from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return, humiliated, in 1789, Versailles was the center of power for the Kingdom. The building itself came to represent the royals' excess and infamous contempt for the plight of their subjects in the face of the severe famine they faced within the squalid city limits. But more than that, the place epitomized the absolutism of the French monarchy instigated by Louis XIV. He began his personal reign, emerging form his minority upon the death of his co-regent in 1661, by declaring he would serve as his own Prime Minister. Twenty years later, he took things a step further by moving out to the countryside.
The real aim of Louis XIV in moving his court and the seat of government to Versailles was twofold; to solidify his powerbase and to distance himself from the wretched masses of Paris. By moving all governmental affairs to the châteaux - ministerial offices and the homes of thousands of courtiers and their attendants - as well as requiring nobles above a certain rank to spend part of each year at Versailles, he ensured an absolute monarchy in France. He understood that those under close watch would find it much more difficult to plot against their King or make any effort to decentralize his authority.
During his reign, Louis XIV embarked on four major building campaigns at Versailles, the last of which ended in 1710. During this span the old hunting lodge was transformed into the massive complex we see today. No further building was done for nearly 20 years until the reign of Louis XV. But this, and even his heir's subsequent changes, was more cosmetic than the substantive building accomplished by Louis XIV.
Once I'd made my way through the lengthy queue, I was faced with a choice of tours. I opted for the guided tour instead of the ubiquitous audio guide. A good choice as it turned out. Those of us with a tour guide were granted access to additional rooms that others did not get to see including the King and Queen's private apartments.
We saw the barely discernable hidden door in the Queen's bedchamber that Marie Antoinette escaped through the night Versailles was overrun by the angry mob. The King's bedchamber featured the most impressive bed I've ever laid eyes on. Set behind a railing not unlike a communion rail was a four poster affair draped with velvet coverings adorned with all manner of gold thread and jewels. This was the scene for one of the more bizarre courtly rituals I've ever heard of, the Lever. Essentially, a lucky few visitors every day were granted the honour of watch the King wake up. It was a very elaborate ceremony instituted by Louis XIV and practiced right on through #16 ('til he lost his head). The whole thing just seems so ridiculous to me. I mean, who wants to watch a guy get out of bed in the morning? That's and honor? And the King didn't even sleep in this grand bedchamber. One of his servants would wake him before the Lever, help him to look presentable and hustle him into the official bedchamber. There he would crawl under the covers once again before his audience was conducted inside. Like I said, bizarre. But of course, soon other courts throughout Europe were imitating it. Fashion, hmph.
In addition to the massive scope of the place, the sheer opulence contained within was mind-blowing. It seemed at times as if everything inside had been gilded. There were priceless tapestries, paintings and furnishing in every room, each more beautiful than the last. And all this was only what they were able to recover. You see, after the revolution, much of contents of Versailles were either destroyed in a reactionary frenzy or sold at auction to fund the cause of the new people's Republique. Over the succeeding centuries, the French government has bought back many pieces. Yet others have been returned as donations from wealthy patrons so that we might all have a sense of just what kind of inequity drove Robespierre and his cohorts to rise up and dethrone the monarchy they so rightly viewed as despotic.
After leaving our guide, we were free to tour the apartments of the Dauphin and the Mesdames as well as the extensive grounds. Now, I'd seen some pretty nifty gardens to this point of the trip; the Alcazar, the Generalife, the grounds of Schönbrunn. But I'm not sure anything really approaches the grandeur and scale of Versailles' outdoor space. The L'Orangerie, set to the side of the palace, was enough to inspire awe by itself. But that's just one little section. I stood at the top of the stairs looking out at the whole expanse unfurl before me, all manicured hedgerows and flowerbeds, fountains and symmetrical pathways. I could hardly believe it. In the distance was the huge Grand Canal, a man-made lake where people were renting row boats to tool around in what now felt like summertime sunshine. Beyond that, out of sight, was the separate residence that Louis XVI had built for Marie Antoinette.
I'd learned that many of the other grand gardens I'd visited had been patterned after the one I was now standing in. And I could definitely see why there had been so many imitators. In terms of sheer scope, this was the hands down winner of the Miracle-Gro "World's Biggest, Bad-ass Garden Contest." But for the most beautiful and tranquil of those I saw, I've got to go with the Alcazar in Seville. Strolling around the grounds there engendered such a sense of wonder it's hard to describe.
In any case, I covered as much ground as I could but, after a little over an hour in the gardens my resolve gave way (as well as my feet). I decided Marie Antoinette's little cottage would have to wait for another visit and I made my way back to the train and into the city.
Back at the hotel I had another splash-fest in the curtain-less shower and then took a load off for a few minutes. It was very agreeable. It had become somewhat of a guilty pleasure, at moments like this, to catch CNN's broadcast of the international version of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. A tether to American pop culture I guess. So, after a laugh-out-loud thirty minutes of that, I set out to replicate the previous night's pattern of a glass of wine and nibbles at a café followed by dinner.
This night I had my heart set on seafood and white wine knowing that I would be indulging in some great reds and rich Burgundian cuisine in the days ahead. I had intended to find a café in the Marais but, almost immediately after emerging from the Metro at the Bastille stop, I came upon a place called Brasserie Bofinger. On the sidewalk near the entrance was a long buffet on which were arranged mounds fresh fish, crabs, oysters and langoustines, lounging on crushed ice. Truly the Fruits de Mer, all bidding me to enter. I gazed through the window at a stereotypical scene of a fine French restaurant. There were bright and elegant wall sconces, huge mirrors framed by the dark wood paneling or, alternately, maze colored walls. It was a huge space reaching farther than I could see from that vantage. There was a bustling wait staff and a happy looking clientele.
With that, I determined I had found my spot to dine but, it was bit early so, I found a café around the corner to take my aperitif. I sat sipping a nice glass of Muscadet and scribbling in my journal. When the wine was gone, I determined it was time to venture back to Bofinger. It was still only 8:00 but, I wnet in and requested a table for one. I'd grown oddly accustomed to this, almost defiant in my solitary status. I was told by the captain that it would be approximately a 45 minute wait. I took that as a good sign. There were three large dining areas, as best I could tell, and for al of them to be full at this hour meant this place must be something special. Every plate I saw being spirited from the kitchen did nothing to contradict this notion.
I took a seat at the small bar in the front of the house and ordered a glass of Sancere. I struck up a conversation with the couple next to me. They turned out to be from, of all places, Minneapolis. They had also lived in Chicago for a while so, we had lots to talk about as we waited for tables. Time seemed to fly by and soon, in rapid succession, we were escorted to our respective tables.
As I was being seated, all I could think was, what a joint. This was old-school Parisian dining, including not a word of English on the menu. The few French words and phrases I do know come mostly from my interest in gastronomy. Because of this I am usually able to muddle my way through when presented a mono-lingual menu. Even still, sometimes the offal can be disguised if you're just guessing. So, I went with something I was sure of to start, six Belon oysters of surpassing freshness. The briny liquor, soft flesh and piquant mignonette absolutely sent me. This was followed by the second best onion soupe I've ever had (you're surprised I'm keeping track?). A touch of sherry and two grinds from pepper mill may have put it over the top. For my main course I ordered Charcouterie de Mar. I was unable to decipher all of the intricacies of the preperation but, I knew there would be salmon, langoustines and assorted other fishy bits. It turned out to be a fantastic choice. The other bits consisted of some smoked whitefish, baked whitefish and some type of fish-ball concoction all of which had been lovingly placed atop a gigantic mound of sauerkraut. This was a real Alsation style treat. I stuck with the Sancere throughout the meal and it worked well with everything.
Perhaps by now you've picked up on my penchant for ending a fine meal not with desert but, rather with fromage. Well, that's exactly what I did this fine evening. Three selections were presented - chévre, camembert and a third soft cow's milk (I think) that I could not identify. There was also a nice palate cleansing little salad and some crusty bread accompanying the cheeses. A glass of vintage port rounded things out and I was a very happy boy.
I think perhaps this stands as another candidate for top 5 meals of the trip. From where I was seated, finishing off the final morsels of my cheese plate, I had a front row seat to the still growing line of hopefuls awaiting a table. It was now 10:30 and Bofinger was still packing them in. As I looked around the room I thought to myself, I'd better get a good job when I return home, 'cause I sure do like living this way. My friend Sandy had given me some advice at the beginning of the trip. He said, "Treat yourself once in a while." Although I had begun in a rather Spartan manner, as my time on the road neared its end, I feared that I had taken his advice too much to heart. But it'll all work out I'm sure.
Have you ever seen a guy do a wheelie on a moped? I did. I don't know what this idiot was trying to prove but, there he was as I walked-off my fine meal. I was walking in the direction of a place Sean and I had found called Riverside. It's a club that hosts live music most nights (rock, blues or jazz) near Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The owner is this little Turkish guy named Chet and I wanted to see if he was still running the joint. Sean and I had become pretty well acquainted with Chet the first night we met him. In fact, we stuck around after he closed the place, drinking Jack Daniels with him, his bartender and his waitress until dawn. It was so much fun, in fact, that we went back the next night.
When I arrived, sure enough, there was Chet behind the bar. After jogging his memory about those two nights he remembered us and warmly welcomed me again. There was a great band so, I decided to stick around for a while. Before long I ended up in a conversation with the couple seated next to me at the bar. His name was Andrew and hers was Jill. I soon found out that he was from Chicago. Jill, however, lived in San Francisco. I made some sort of comment about the difficulty of a long distance romance and Andrew told me, "Well it's going to get real interesting now since we just got engaged tonight." Yeah, I guess it is. We toasted their impending nuptials and had a good time together that evening. It turns out that he was the CMO at IRI and she worked for McCann Erickson Advertising so, we had a lot in common. It also turned out that they were planning to head off wine tasting in Burgundy as well the next day. "Small world," I said and wished them luck as the evening came to a close (much earlier than the last time I'd been to Riverside).
The next day was my last in Paris. I had decided to spend it with my friend Pablo so, I dragged all my gear to Gare de Lyon, stowed it in a locker and back-tracked to the Musée Picasso. Without question, there were many terrific pieces there but, I think the show at the Albertina in Vienna had spoiled me. It all felt a bit confusing inside here. Often times it wasn't clear in which direction one should head to keep within the narrative the curators were trying to develop. But these were minor points.
After I'd had my fill there I felt like I had done everything I really wanted to in Paris this time around. In my final hours there, I now wanted to just soak up the vibe of this astounding city a little bit more. So, I sat at one of the typical, small, round tables outside a quintessential café off the Rue Saint-Antoine, not far from the museum. I sat and wrote and watched the Parisians stroll by looking effortlessly chic and filled with an exuberance for life that only comes when one's priorities have been properly sorted out. By now, I knew that look. And I felt ready to count myself among their kind.
It was a sunny but, cool fall day. I made a light lunch at the café of a Leffe Blonde and some pommes frites and then slipped out of town without looking back. I didn't need to because I know that I will return again and again throughout my lifetime.
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Ben Dicosta on

Thanks for sharing your views on this topic. It is much appreciated to get your point of view.

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